Perhaps there is no greater reward than seeing the fruit of one’s labor bloom right in front of your eyes.

This was the case for Mavs Academy staff this week when the first Dallas Mavs All-Girls GEM Hoop Camp of the summer took place. After launching the new GEM program during the pandemic — which stands for Girls Empowered by Mavs — the franchise was unsure about the impact.  

They had the vision to dream big — but no one could predict how rapidly the camp would grow in such a short amount of time. The response has been incredible and this week’s all-girls camp doubled in size with 60 campers participating at the event, many of them attending their first event with the Dallas Mavericks. 

Mavs Academy coach Kelli Robinson has worked tirelessly for two years to bring the GEM vision to life, and the response has been fantastic. Current Dallas Mavericks players are also pouring out their support for the camps.

This week, Boban Marjanović, fresh from his latest film appearance in the new Adam Sandler movie “Hustle,” surprised kids at three Mavs Academy camps. His advice to the all-girls camp was especially poignant. He explained how he leaned on female role models in his own life and pointed out the magnificent purpose his late grandmother Bina played in his life. 

“My grandmother was my role model because there were no bad days for her,” Marjanović explained.

Marjanović was more authentic and transparent with the all-girls campers because of the questions asked. Many times kids will stick with the NBA and basketball, but the girls wanted to know more.

They asked questions about his mindset and preparation and how to keep a good attitude while also competing at a high level. They were also interested about the specific impact his grandmother had on his life.  

“She worked on the farm, fed the animals, and taught me what it means to have a purpose in this world,” he shared about Bina, who passed away in September, 2020. “She taught me everything, like my smile and how to love, and she’s where I get my energy. It comes from her for sure. She enjoyed her life on her farm and village. She reminds me that we must enjoy our time because we won’t be here forever.”

Claire Zimmerman is participating at GEM Camp this week, and she just finished fifth grade. The 10-year-old shared with us why attending camp with girls has transformed her love for the game.

“I like basketball. It’s like one of my favorite sports,” Zimmerman said. “One time, I went to this camp somewhere else, and I was on a team with all boys. They never passed to me, and I was barely seen. I was just as good as them, but because I’m a girl, they wouldn’t pass me the ball. I was in tears. Then when I came to this camp, I felt like I was seen, and people were cheering for me. I feel really good about myself.” 

Zimmerman also said that at school and other places, people often mention her height. She said, while it’s great to be tall, there’s a lot more to her. Perhaps no one understands this more than Marjanović. 

“People at camp really took time to listen about who I am,” Zimmerman said.

This is her first time attending a Dallas Mavericks camp, and she said her mom’s suggestion was a good one.

“My mom signed me up for it, and I thought it would be boring at first, but once we started this week, I felt like I’ve improved,” Zimmerman said. “I have started to get better at ball-handling and shooting, so I’m having a lot of fun.”

Kristen Grassi is the leader the Mavs have entrusted to guide Dallas Mavs All-Girls GEM Camp this week. She’s also directing several other camps across North Texas with the Mavs this summer. Grassi coached and taught in the classroom for 14 years and recently pivoted to focusing her attention 100 percent on youth development in sports. 

She says this week has been amazing for her in many ways. It feels like a full-circle moment.

“There weren’t a lot of all-girls camps when I was younger, and I did have to compete against the boys,” Coach Grassi said. “It caused me to raise my game, but I was always chasing to go higher instead of just enjoying where I was at the moment.

“Now coming out here, I realize how important it is for some of these girls to have this outlet. We are losing so many in sports because the girls just don’t have those connections. Sports are supposed to be fun. If you don’t make those connections, it’s lonely and not fun. These young ladies are leaving here with a new passion for the game and friendships to go along with it. That speaks volumes.”

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, participation in sports positively impacts the health and wellbeing of youth, but twice as many girls quit sports by the age of 14. 

There are a few common barriers, including low confidence, perceived lack of skill, feeling unwelcome, lack of same-gender coaches and awareness of the sport. Studies show that ethnicity also plays a heavy role, along with socioeconomic barriers. Girls that self-identified as Indigenous participated less in organized basketball than girls self-identifying as Asian, South Asian, Black and Caucasian. 

Statistics show that even more young girls drop out of sports from low-income families because they can’t keep up with rising costs. This creates a massive disadvantage for many young athletes who really love the game but simply can’t afford camp. 

The Mavericks hope to create a more equitable playing field among youth in North Texas. The organization hosts several clinics for underserved communities each year and the Mavs also strategically place camps at various locations in North Texas suburbs. This is one way to ease the cost of gas and financial burdens for some families.

The Mavericks also continue to support GEM programs through various activities beyond just the game of basketball. Creating more leadership opportunities for women in sports is also a priority.

Coach Grassi says it’s also essential for young girls to have female role models to walk alongside them. 

“We have talks every morning and encourage the girls to meet new people, tell their stories or even share something interesting about themselves without judgment,” she said.

“We talk about female role models and highlight the importance of getting to know each other. So by the time they leave camp on Friday, they are family. We have girls exchanging numbers with each other after camp each day and families meeting each other. They are setting up events and playdates beyond just basketball. It’s really special to see.” 

The Mavs Academy is celebrating its 29th year this year. There are plenty of other camps taking place all summer long, including two other GEM Hoop Camps in July. The Mavs will host a total of 34 camps this summer including basketball, dance and gaming. Click here to learn more.



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